The shortcomings of the much-anticipated comedy sequel Coming 2 America are too many to list. But they all begin and end with the unfortunate yet predictable truth that the film simply didn’t need to be made. Inundated with tired tropes and stereotypes of black people on both sides of the vast Atlantic, it is difficult to grasp the objectives of the movie, parse through its dubious humour and imagine who its intended audience is.
The writers (Kenya Barris, Barry W Blaustein, David Sheffield) are self-aware enough of fans’ preconceived skepticism concerning the project, to insert a dialogue in which newly introduced characters absent in the film’s prequel, Coming to America, confess this follow-up’s lack of purpose. Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) – who plays the long-lost son of the prince-turned-King Akeem (Eddie Murphy) – points out to his bona fide Zamunda romantic interest, Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha), that her love of American movies ignores that American cinema now includes remakes nobody asked for. It’s a warranted self-deprecating quip. It’s also a rare moment in the film that is actually funny, which is a far cry from its 1988 predecessor.
Even today, the first Coming to America holds its own as a comedy classic. It evokes nostalgia cross-culturally and across several generations who came of age during it, or at least watched it in the decade or so that came after, part of a much-loved childhood canon. Notwithstanding, from its first arrival and since, there have been many criticisms for its portrayal of Africa in the form of its fictional Zamunda nation, reducing the continent’s representation to an ahistorical facade of mostly simple-minded people occupying, by contrast, an ostentatious kingdom.
If this were Coming 2 America’s main error, then it might even be redeemable to some if it were also funny, charming, and had a stimulating plot. It has none of these. Comedy, like every other film genre, can both meet its bar and contain elements that leave much to be desired; a film’s failure in one area does not preclude it from being enjoyable and more importantly, succeeding as a whole. The entire problem of Coming 2 America is not only is the whole not greater than the sum of its parts, there are simply no great parts. What does stand out though is how the film employs and weaponizes stereotypes of both Africans and black Americans in its depictions.
On the one hand, Zamundans are yet again represented as simple-minded, the emphasis on their backwardness might even be more prevalent in the sequel than in the original. Added to this, is a cultural landscape that has simply evolved. Allowing for such an archaic portrayal without an amusing narrative to complement it negates the possibility of levity for old and new audiences that have both been shaped by a more nuanced understanding of culture and representation. On the other hand, the portrayal of Lavelle and his family, notably his mother, Mary (Leslie Jones), and uncle, Reem (Tracy Morgan), also engages in a disturbing rendering of working-class black Americans and how they might participate in cultures beyond their own.
Among the film’s transgressions is also a shocking revelation that Lavelle is the consequence of Mary having had non-consensual sex with Prince Akeem, which is utilized as comedic fodder for all involved. Surely, a more imaginative and less dreadful event – it needn’t even be funny – could have provided a suitable explanation. In an industry that was supposedly reinvigorated by a #MeToo era less than three years ago, adopting humour alongside any depiction of sexual assault is a huge risk. It’s not that it can’t be done, but it must serve a greater ambition than operating as a mere plot point and be treated as more than a careless occurrence.
A combination of the trifold examples of an obsolete use of sexual assault humour, bygone representations of Africans and classist caricatures of black Americans altogether encapsulates the film’s unnecessary existence. Coming 2 America fails to both update its sensibilities to this era (despite a half-hearted attempt to, along the way, force in some perfunctory feminist ideas) and reproduce the fantastical but funny notions that made the original genuinely great, in spite of its flaws.
Despite their ubiquity, sequels remain a tough sell for an audience hoping to take equal or similar pleasure to what they did the first time around, something especially true when the originals are held in such esteem as Coming to America. Even if this second film had been good, it was always going to be a tough act to follow because of its built-in audience. That it is so spectacularly inadequate, unable to even meet its own genre minimum of entertainment, much less demonstrate any increased aptitude in its representation, is a testament to the only thing the film got right: nobody asked for this.